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Missouri prison inmates transcribe books for the blind

Monday, December 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Offenders in the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City translate numerous books and papers into Braille for Rehabilitation Services for the Blind. They all work in the Center for Braille and Narration Production at the correctional facility.

JEFFERSON CITY — Somewhere in Missouri, a first-grader is learning to read, a grandma is searching for a yummy recipe and a middle-aged person is reviewing human resource policies of his new employer.

What's shared by all three is they're doing it across their fingertips — reading Braille, translated by the Center for Braille and Narration Production.

The center is one of the largest industries at Jefferson City Correctional Center, among clothing, license plates and furniture manufacturing, Warden David Dormire said.

"The blind citizens know; the general public may not know what we provide," Dormire said.

From children's books to calculus textbooks, offenders translate materials requested through the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, under the Family Support Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services.

The center began in 1973 in cooperation with the Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind with three volunteer-inmates narrating college textbooks onto cassette while in their cells.

Kenneth Gilbert remembered the late 1990s when the center was at the Missouri State Penitentiary, had 17 workers and a printer on a rolling cart.

"Now we're on a network," Gilbert said. "It's pretty impressive how much it's changed and grown."

Among the other work programs, facilities were built at the Jefferson City Correctional Center with this program in mind. Then, when some of the educational programs, housed in the same building were cut, the center's production expanded.

Now, more than 105 offenders work in this elite program.

"We can't train someone who would get locked up in segregation," Dormire said.

The offenders who succeed in the application, interview and training process are bright and responsible.

Although the center is under the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, mostly retired corrections officers take care of the supervision.

"It's good for us to have experienced people," Dormire said.

Supervisor Henry Jackson has seen offenders grow in individual responsibility since being employed by the center, he said.

"The 105 are always compliant," Dormire said. "They don't want to worry about losing their job."

And those who work at the center become role models for the nearly 2,000 offenders at the prison.

"All of our programs make a difference," Dormire said.

The offenders enjoy learning as they work.

Bill Shelby found the history of Islam to be interesting as he was preparing a history textbook the 1,200-page text takes at least two months to convert to large print, once it has been scanned in.

"It's definitely a plus," Shelby said. "I might not pick up a book (on the subject) and read it. This job is educational, I learn a skill, and it enhances my vocabulary."

Like others who work in the center, Shelby is at his work area five days each week and sometimes volunteering on Saturday.

"I love this job," Shelby said. "You realize what you're doing serves a purpose for someone who really needs it."

It's real work, stressed Maureen Stocksick, center director. And sometimes, especially right before a new school year, there are a lot of jobs to be done in a short time frame.

"I like the high expectation, the work ethic," Shelby said.

Many of the offenders working at the center have been certified, or are pursuing the two-year certification process, through the Library of Congress.

Lester Jackson is on lesson 16 of 20 after six months and hopes to complete his Braille certification before he is released.

"It adds to my hopes of employment, once I leave here," Jackson said. "There are two Braille centers in Kansas City; my wife said there's a demand to transcribe to Braille. I look forward to jumping into the work force."

Because such a high percentage of the center's workers are Braille certified, "it brings a level of credibility to our program," Dennis Powell said. "It means the highest quality work for the client." Gilbert added, "That's important because most of what we do is educational."

The center sets high quality control, whether it's cleaning out the tiny pops in the audio or making sure the punctuation exactly replicates the original text.

"We try to do the very best we can, so when it goes out there, it's good quality and beneficial to them," Homer Dugan said, who works in the scanning room, often a book's first stop at the center.

All the work is tedious, time-intensive and results in a large paper product in the end. The King James version of the Bible made 70 volumes.

"It goes from a little book to a whole shelf," Glenn Burrowm said.

He has been setting a dictionary to Braille since March. He's almost to the "T"s.

"My crossword puzzles are improving," Burrow said.

Among the textbooks and other items the offenders work on, the most difficult task probably is converting math work into Nemeth Code. The computer operator has to draw out graphing fields and various extra scripts are required for those equations.

"It helps to understand it, but you don't have to to key it in," Kevin Dyal said.

The second most difficult situation may be to describe the photos and illustrations in a textbook, especially for people who may never have seen such things.

"You have to think about 3-D objects, how does a blind person feel it?" Dyal said.

Despite the challenges the translating poses, "it's definitely a rewarding job," Dyal said.

The newest addition to the center's offerings is Enhanced Audio.

"Clear and Present Danger" was the first book (about 40 hours in length) where they added sound effects to the narration in the padded sound booth with lots of high-tech gadgets.

"There's a lot of technical stuff, many programs you use," David Rhodes said. "It brings the book more to life."

Rhodes was incarcerated before the Internet was accessible. But he'd been around computers and sound boards, playing in a music band.

"I thought I knew something about computers," Rhodes said. "But these guys have taught me so much. I'm learning a lot, and I'm able to do something positive. I'm grateful for what the center has done for the prison."

Everything the center works on is archived, in case it is requested by someone else in the future.

"It's good for us to give back to the community," Dugan said. "We're not in society, but we can be a part of society."

Rehabilitation Services for the Blind also includes programs for business enterprise, independent living, older blind services, children's services and prevention.

"But the center is an integral part," Stocksick said.

Stocksick became director of the center in January 2001. By the end of 2009, she expects the center will have produced about 1,400 jobs — a job ranges from one textbook to printing 5,000 large-print calendars.

The center does customized work, such as when a visually impaired student can read print on a nonwhite background. And it does projects for other states, too.

Missouri's center is in the top three from 36 prison Braille programs in 23 states, Stocksick said.

About 80 percent of the center's equipment comes from surplus property. And the offenders earn a "very minimal" salary.

"If this material came from an outside agency, it would cost six to seven times more than what it does to operate that center. It's a very lean program, what it actually costs to operate," Stocksick said. "But you can't put a figure on the benefits to our clients."


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